During last week’s Comment Section panel and the rush of offline and online conversation, chewing on ideas, laughing, tweeting, heckling, and cheering, #TOpoli tweeter @vickersty made a comment that made me pause entirely and realize just how important the evening was:
I’ve been following Toronto politics, through newspapers, #TOpoli, and #VoteTO before it, since the kickoff of the 2010 election campaign. But my city politics birthday, the day when this whole show started to matter in a way that’s as intimate as breathing, is July 28: the day when Mayor Ford’s executive committee voted to run their budget cut deputations all night long — and a whole bunch of people who had never met before showed up with encouragement, snacks, and the generosity of a real, living community to keep those deputants going.
“They’ve made a really big mistake,” one of my new stranger-friends said, around two in the morning, in committee room 2; four hours before he bought the whole room coffee from the Starbucks across the street; “they just put everyone who’s opposed to their budget in one room so we can exchange business cards.”
And: Oh, I realized, after reading @vickersty’s tweet. We’ve just put a bunch of the people who really want to see women thrive in Toronto politics in one room, so we can exchange metaphorical business cards.
The July executive committee meetings were the start of something valuable, not just in the direction of this city’s government, but in our civic discourse. And at #WiTOpoli there we were, in one room, with snacks and drinks and no 140-character limit.
What were we going to talk about? And how would the men and women at #WiTOpoli start building the city we want?
Here’s a sampling of the people I talked to after the panel that night, and the good ideas they’re working on to get women’s voices to carry farther in Toronto politics.
The User’s Guide to City Hall
Activist Dave Meslin (@meslin) has been pushing from several directions to improve the accessibility of City Hall, an approach incorporating his The Fourth Wall exhibit and work with RaBIT.ca. Tweeter @catfish8888 picked up on one of the ideas Dave has floated after the panel: “I was thinking of your ‘guide to City Hall’ idea. Make it easy to grasp and less daunting to newbies.”
Navigating City Hall is a skill, and one too often couched in jargon because we tend to forget that not everyone speaks the subcultural languages we ourselves know. Making a 101-style guide to accessing both the political and services side of our city government would give women wanting to get involved a great starter resource for how to get their own projects off the ground.
The tweeters, activists, council-watchers, and self-described “wonks and nerds” of #TOpoli are in our own way not as accessible as we’d like, too. We throw around inside jokes and references, know who all the councillors are, and take for granted, just like in any social group, that the knowledge is common.
Comment Section panelist Alicia Pang (@neville_park) pointed out there’s a need for an easy way for newer community members to join the conversation: primers on the issues, personalities, and contexts that we discuss in #TOpoli and #TOCouncil so casually, in order to reduce the barriers to entry to our own clubhouse in a fun and easy way. By the end of the evening, people were talking about how they might get it off the ground.
Being an arts professional means honing certain skills: presentation, organizing and pitching your ideas, and thinking on your feet when asked about the things that matter to you — some of the same skills that make the difference between an average committee deputation and an excellent one. #TOpoli tweeter Lucas Costello (@elcostello) discussed, after the panel, a project he and a partner are working on: organizing workshops on those skills to help citizens in all wards and neighbourhoods give better, more effective deputations. It’s a great way to make sure more diverse, representative, and grassroots voices are better heard, and to make community members who might not feel like they can have a say at City Hall feel the confidence they’d need to get involved for the first time.
The Ward Auxiliaries
All right, I’m cheating. This one’s mine.
Much of the day-to-day business of city politics happens in a unit smaller than council: at the ward level. Projects either too local or specific for full council or committee agendas, or just capable of being accomplished through a councillor and established city departments, are worked on every day by activists who are focused on their block, their neighbourhood, their ward. Councillors understand that: their job is to make responsible voting decisions based on the needs of the people in their wards, and to represent those people’s interests.
As council-watchers and overall city activists, we don’t always think on the ward level, or speak to our councillors as constituents living in their ward; as the people who represent our interests. And we don’t always talk to our geographical neighbours about how they’re making our city better.
Organizing ourselves by ward — finding out who our neighbours are, and what they’re working on, and approaching city politics from the perspective of a constituent — might help us speak to our councillors about common priorities in a way we can’t as “the usual suspects”. And even better, it could maybe help bridge the gap with the people not participating on Twitter or at council, but diligently working on projects and ideas right next door.
A #WiTOpoli group blog
And then there’s this blog, itself.
Blogging takes lots of time, and work, that many people don’t have. It means coming up with regular things to say, a certain degree of networking, and a comfort with writing for an audience that isn’t everyone’s top skill. But many of us have one thing we’d like to say, or occasional ideas; many of us have time to write that one thing up in whatever plain or formal language we want, and send it into the world.
And that’s why the #WiTOpoli committee members, after the panel ended, were discussing a group blog for women in Toronto politics: a space for people to speak occasionally, as part of a community, and still have a platform where they can know they’ll be hear. This way, we can increase the diversity of opinions and viewpoints in our public discourse, and build our city together.
Here’s to the hope that this week’s post, these projects, and the way #WiTOpolipanel attendees have started volunteering for each other’s ideas — exchanging our metaphorical business cards! — is just the beginning! Feel inspired by any of these ideas? Tweet at the folks who raised them – many hands make light work, and your collaboration might be just what’s needed to get something started.
-Leah Bobet (@leahbobet)